Winner of the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year 2000 and Winner of the Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food 2000.
August 8, 2022
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Mangia Bene

    Mediterranean people lived in a chronic state of malnourishment under a threatening cloud of starvation. This certainly explains the symbolic value that food acquired in preindustrial Europe. The myth of the land of Cockaigne, that imaginary land of plenty, was an escapist conception that did not disappear until the seventeenth century. The land of Cockaigne, from the Italian Cocagna, was the glutton and epicure's home, an imaginary medieval utopia where life was a continual circus of luxurious idleness. The word may have come to the Italian from the Latin coquere, "to cook," through a word meaning "cake." So the land of Cocagna was literally the land of cakes where the rivers were of wine, the houses built of cake, the streets paved with pastry, and the shops provided goods for nothing. Compare this myth, which finds its first expression in a thirteenth-century French poem, with the vision of paradise in the Koran (see Chapter 1 of my book A Mediterranean Feast) that was already translated into Latin as Summa totinus haeresis Saracenorum in 1150 by Peter the Venerable. It is not hard to see how the Islamic conception of pleasure and paradise may very well have influenced this romantic notion in European literature and how a culinary aesthetic could be absorbed by the literate, and rich, class, eventually trickling down to the masses.

     The poor, accounting for about 95 percent of the population of the Mediterranean in the sixteenth century, had no cuisine. In the weeks before the harvest the poor subsisted on the dregs of the last harvest's grains and bran, foods that could become moldy, poisoning them with ergot. When the poor ate unsalted meat, it was often from animals that had died in unknown ways, not those that had been butchered. Even if it were true that the nose knows, starvation will overcome the natural revulsion to putrefying meat.

     Our knowledge of the diet of Mediterranean people in the sixteenth century comes from all sorts of documents, letters, receipts, official papers, bills of lading, and so forth, but these sources are suspect in the information they can provide about the huge majority who lived on the margins of rich society-the poor, the beggars, tramps, and bandits. The menus found in some documents, as well as the recipes of famous Renaissance cookbooks, were for the privileged. The feasts of the Este family, noble Guelphs (who supported the papacy against the Ghibellines, aristocrats who supported the German emperors in medieval Italy) who ruled Ferrara for centuries, were not portraits of the daily cooking of Emilia-Romagna as much as they are today an inspiration for food writers and banqueters. The diet of the poor consisted of not much more than rations of soup, vaca salada (salt meat), bizcocho (hardtack biscuit), wine, and vinegar. Many of the poor were not even eating in their homes, homes that often lacked cooking facilities, but rather scavenging whatever they could from street vendors or gathering wild herbs or nuts.

     As the French historian Fernand Braudel noted, feasts and banquets play a very small role in Mediterranean literature with the salient exception of the food of dreams--for example, as in Cervantes' Don Quixote or Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel. In Don Quixote, the wedding feast of Camacho is a veritable orgy of excess-a whole steer spitted on a whole elm turning over a burning mountain of wood surrounded by wine jugs each large enough to hold a whole sheep. In the distended belly of the steer were two dozen delicate little suckling pigs, sewn up inside to make them tasty and tender. Scattered about, hanging from the trees, were skinned hares, plucked chickens, and other game as well as sixty wine-skins holding eight gallons of wine each, and loaves of white bread and cheeses stacked like bricks making a wall. Two cauldrons of oil were used for frying puddings, which were drained and plunged into another cauldron of honey. There were fifty cooks. The spices seem to have been bought not by the pound but by the baleful and were displayed in a great chest. Sancho's description of this feast is positively exhilarated and the reader is overjoyed at his happiness. He asks one of the cooks if he can dip a piece of bread in the broth and the cook obligingly ladles three hens and two geese. Cervantes wanted to capture the dreams and constant preoccupations of the perpetually hungry peasant.

     In Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel, the young Gargantua, who is always hungry and thirsty, sees the world as an inexhaustible source of joy and pleasure, a true land of Cockaigne. Later in the book Gargantua's diet changes to a more reasonable one.